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Teachers would tie own rating to MCAS

Massachusetts union accepts use of scores in making evaluations

Paul Reville, the state secretary of education, praised the union for taking a position, “rather than sit on the sidelines and try to poke holes in it.” Paul Reville, the state secretary of education, praised the union for taking a position, “rather than sit on the sidelines and try to poke holes in it.” (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff/ File)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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The state’s largest teachers’ union, embracing a concept shunned by many educators, plans to offer a proposal today to use student test scores to help judge which teachers deserve promotions and which ones should be fired.

The report from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, to be released at a state Board of Education meeting, positions the union as an active participant — and an unusual one, for a labor organization — in pushing an issue that is highly polarizing among teachers.

Many teachers unions around the country, including the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, have opposed efforts to include standardized tests such as the MCAS in firing decisions, arguing that such tests fail to capture the full range of learning experiences and penalize teachers charged with educating students from challenging backgrounds. But the association says that the change is inevitable and that teachers would be better off shaping it.

“We have to be the architects of reform, rather than the subject of it,’’ said Paul Toner, the union’s president. “We have always said we’re not here to protect bad teachers.’’

President Obama and others who favor using more testing and data to inform what goes on in schools argue that standardized tests are a direct and effective way to hold teachers accountable.

The debate over using test scores to measure teacher performance has heated up since the Obama administration made it a priority in a grant competition, worth hundreds of millions of dollars to states that win them, including Massachusetts.

Unions in a handful of other states have lent support to state laws, passed in hope of winning federal funding, that require tying test scores to evaluations. Massachusetts did not pass such a law, though it did promise in its federal Race to the Top application to use student test scores to help assess teachers. A state committee, which includes union representatives, is now working to craft how those evaluations would work.

But the Massachusetts Teachers Association may be the first union to write its own plan.

Paul Reville, the state secretary of education, said that while he may disagree with some specifics in the union’s proposal, he wanted to praise the union for staking out a position, “rather than sit on the sidelines and try to poke holes in it.’’

The union’s report supports using student scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System as one measure of teacher and principal performance. Under the plan, teachers and school leaders would be judged based on several years of test scores.

To avoid penalizing teachers with more challenging students, scores would be measured against those in other classrooms with a similar mix of students. Progress of low-performing students in one classroom, for example, would be measured against others around the state with similar scores.

More aggressive states have sought to make test scores the centerpiece of teacher evaluations, worth as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s grade. The association’s approach would not do that. Instead, it would rate teachers based on other factors, including classroom observation, and then use student achievement measures to validate those judgments. If test scores did not match the rest of a teacher’s evaluation, the teacher would be reassessed.

Teachers with the highest marks would have the opportunity to earn more money by mentoring and performing other special jobs. Those that do poorly would be put on a one-year improvement plan and be dismissed if they fail to improve. (Teachers with less than three years on the job could be dismissed without a one-year plan.)

The MTA proposal also calls for relying on additional measures, because 4 in 5 teachers teach subjects or grade levels not evaluated by MCAS.

Kathleen J. Skinner, the union’s top policy official, said the union believed it was clear the state would be imposing a new evaluation system and wanted to make sure the state took into account that teaching is complex work that cannot be judged solely by numbers.

“I think it’s the most progressive proposal you’ll see out of organized labor’’ nationally, Skinner said.

Timothy Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, a national organization that favors changing teacher evaluations to include student achievement, agrees that the Massachusetts Teachers Association may be the only state union to craft its own proposal. But some unions have decided to enter the debate, as change became inevitable in their states. Like others, he said the details and execution of any new evaluation system would determine whether it has any teeth.

The Boston Foundation’s Paul Grogan, a strong advocate for tying test scores to teacher evaluations, applauded the union for entering the discussion, in contrast to AFT Massachusetts, which he accused of maintaining a “scorched-earth defense of the status quo.’’

Thomas J. Gosnell, president of AFT Massachusetts, said his union, which includes Boston teachers, was willing to cooperate with the state on a fair evaluation system, but reiterated his opposition to using the MCAS to measure teacher performance.

“There can be a whole array of items used to determine the evaluation of teachers,’’ he said.

Even as many welcomed the Massachusetts Teachers Association proposal, the issue is far from settled.

The more than 40 people on the state committee charged with drafting new teacher evaluation guidelines have yet to agree on a plan, which would then be subject to state board approval as well as individual contract negotiations between unions and school districts.

One big question, some educators say, is whether state and local districts will have the money and staff to perform more thorough evaluations.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.